Editor's Note: For this special issue, we asked our columnists to cover a variety of e-business topics. Their insightful commentary provides a well- rounded outlook as to the benefits and challenges of the e-world. Regular column format will return next month.

Two out of three online shoppers abandon their e-commerce transaction after placing items in their shopping cart.1 Twenty seven percent of people in the U.S. who tried e-banking stopped because the services were too complicated or time-consuming, while another 25 percent stopped because they were unhappy with customer service.2 The harsh realities of e-commerce are coming to light as the markets are losing their confidence in the dot-coms. Those who conduct business in the Internet world must deliver value and quality care to the customer ­ not just promise and glitter: throwing up a Web site will not cut it; bolting e-commerce onto brick-and-mortar business processes will only add to your cost of doing business with suboptimized return; the magical appearance of virtual dot-com start-ups without understanding their market and the role of customer satisfaction in business success is now resulting in the "poof" of "disappearance" from the playing field.

Recently when I was in the U.K., a major player in etailing, www.boo.com, met its demise as its governors released more than 200 of its 250 employees in an effort to salvage the company from total loss.

Many now believe that as many as 98 percent of dot-com start-ups will not be around two years later. Why? It all has to do with quality. In e-business, information quality is even more important that in the brick-and-mortar establishments. That's because: everything ­ except for physical products ­ is information, and you no longer have complete control over the information creation processes.

This article focuses on the first point of information quality for e-business: the obligation to the customer (knowledge worker) never ceases.

Information Quality in E-Business

Every quality movement and methodology begins and ends with the concept of customer as the focus of product development and service delivery. World class companies that desire to stay in business ­ and thrive ­ have customer satisfaction as a major business performance measure. While some organizations are fixated on shareholder value as a performance measure, world class companies recognize that their customers are the ones who pay the bills, and it is the customers they must delight for sustained success.

Because the e-business enterprise is an information enterprise, it must provide information, products and services that consistently meet customer expectations. In e-business, your customers are knowledge workers who interact with your organization through the information on your Web site. Data is a representation of real world objects and events; but in e-business, the Web site is not just a representation of your enterprise ­ it is the enterprise. Without quality information about your company and services, your (information) customers may have a skewed view of who you are. Quality information means intuitive, accurate, complete (but not over-loading), understandable and without misleading information.

Why E- Customers Return

It is easy enough to get people to visit a Web site ­ simply manage the search engines. But it is quite another to keep customers coming back. In experience gathered by analyzing clickstream behavior of various sites and by customer satisfaction surveys, we know you must pay attention to only a few quality characteristics. But beware, your customers will measure the quality of these characteristics, not your information quality team. Those metrics, and how they meet customer expectations, include:

Valuable Content. Sexy graphics and animation alone will not sustain your customers' interest. Yes, your Web site must be interesting, but the customer must leave with knowledge that is illuminating and fulfilling, with increased worth and ability to more successfully meet their goals. The information you provide must be:

  • Intuitive and understandable. If they cannot easily understand the site or the information in it, you will have said goodby before you are able to say hello. You will likely confuse your customers if you design your Web site without thinking about it from their point of reference. If you design your Web site logically from your company's view, you will virtually guarantee not meeting your customers' view. If customers misinterpret information and make a wrong purchase, expect returned products and nonreturning customers. (World class companies rigorously analyze returns, find the root cause and fix the process causing them.)
  • Accurate Content. With such wide visibility, inaccurate pricing data that favors the e-customer will be communicated to others not by word of mouth, but at Internet speed. Ask Argos, the U.K. retailer that put television sets on sale on the Internet for $5.00 (£3.00). But if you err not in favor of the customer, you will hear about that first.
  • Current Content. Information on the Internet is not bound by "information quality decay" like printed text because of its physical limitation. Information quality decay is the phenomenon that some data is inaccurate not because it was created incorrectly, but because the characteristics of the real-world object represented have changed, without being updated or kept current. Information quality decay puts data in the same category as fish, smelling just as rank. I have seen software product listings on the Web so out of date, that they are two company name changes behind! Volatile data must have processes in place that are able to detect and capture changed data such as addresses and product prices.

Your customers will measure information content value; no one else can. You know how well they value it by their return.
Fast. Fast does not mean time to market of your e-business solution. Fast as a quality measure means how quickly the customer derives value from their e-business experience.

With people stretched for time, every second of waiting time as your pages download is a second of "muda" time (muda is the Japanese word for waste) for the customer. Design your information chunks and objects to load fast. Minimize unnecessary clicking and page traversing. Do not force a mouse click when the enter key can take the visitor to the next stage. The quality Web site will minimize the customer's muda time relative to the value time of their experience.

Reliable. Your Web site must be available when your customers are. When both you and your competition conducted business from 9 to 5, your customers did not have a choice. They do now. Unscheduled downtime does not just cost the lost sales for the outage period. It costs lost customer lifetime value of some of those customers who went elsewhere and liked what they found.

Easy to Use. Every click that takes the customer somewhere they did not expect to go takes them closer to the competition. Every point that confuses the customer marks that site as a site to avoid. Every time a customer has to re-enter data they have already provided causes them to sense that you do not care about them or their time. If you do care, you will help your customer by minimizing unnecessary rekeying, simplifying sign-ons and reusing the data they have already given. Allow customers to update their personal data easily. If you have earned their trust, they will want you to have current and accurate data about them.

Meets Expectations. The bottom line is this: if you concentrate on helping your customers be successful in their life and work, they will be faithful to you. You must at least meet their expectations regarding why they came to your site. If you wish to thrive, you will not stop there. World class organizations such as Custom Research, Inc. and WingspanBank.com measure their business performance based on how well they exceed their customers' expectations.

WingspanBank.com knows the truth of these quality characteristics, and their market share growth proves it. Information quality in e-business is, in fact, e- business quality. Robert Rosko, vice president of Internet Development for Wingspan sums it up, "The e-commerce winners will be those who focus on understanding online customers and improve the quality of [their] life, not just those that get there first."

What do you think? Send your comments to Larry.English@infoimpact.com or via www.infoimpact.com.

References

1 Dawe, Tony. Human interaction to keep the customer satisfied. The Times (London). May 15, 2000. P. 7.

2 Carey, Anne R. and Visgaitis, Gary. Pulling the online banking plug. USA Today citing Cyber Dialogue. February 12, 2000.

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